Donavon Smallwood: 

Languor

2021 Winner 

Since the age of seven, Donavon Smallwood has lived in the same Harlem apartment near the northern tip of Central Park. Growing up, he was no stranger to the expansive greenery, spending time with friends among the native flora and fauna to escape the congested city.

Before picking up a camera, Smallwood had a keen interest in archeology, however he changed directions after taking his first photography class in high school. “I have always been interested in archeology / paleontology and uncovering mysteries or hidden histories” he says, “I had planned to become an archaeologist since I was a child until I took a photo class in high school — the teacher flipped a switch in my mind comparing my interest in archaeology with photography and I decided from then on I would be a photographer.”

Throughout the Spring and Summer of 2020, while New York was in lockdown, Smallwood began photographing in the north-western corner of Central Park. “The process was just going out to the park every day and walking with no destination and letting compositions appear in front of me like magic, I wasn’t usually trying to come up with an idea or even an image, they would just appear from being present and open in the moment”.

Smallwood was not the only one using this space to escape the stress of a city in lockdown. Many residents of the city were taking this time to reconnect with nature. Smallwood began talking to these people, asking to photograph them within this natural space. “It came easily” Smallwood says, “The people I met were eager or just unusually generous with their image and life, sharing these brief and intimate moments with me seemed to be just another part of their day.” These tender black and white portraits are a testament to the ability that these natural spaces have to connect us together.

Though a beautiful and tranquil place, unbeknownst to most, Central Park was originally built through a process of racial displacement. Smallwood discovered the fascinating history of Seneca Village, a thriving 19th-century African-American community just above lower Manhattan. During the early 1850’s the city began planning for a natural area that would relieve the residents of the congestion of the city. In 1853, the New York State Legislature set aside 775 acres of land in Manhattan, from 59th to 106th Streets, and between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, to create the country’s first major landscaped public park. However, the city acquired the land for the project through eminent domain, where residents of Seneca Village were forced to leave and many were under-compensated for their land.

The photographs in Languor give an intimate glimpse into our interactions with the land and nature around us. “Learning the history of Seneca Village just focused my thinking around the idea of nature and Man’s relation to it” Smallwood says, “I had already been reading a lot of William Blake and Hamann so learning that history and thinking of it as an instance of Nature taking precedent over the humanity/civility of people helped partially guide my decision making when making and sequencing images."

Languor brings an intimacy not only between photographer and subject, but our innate desire to be among the natural world around us. Especially in more urbanized cities, these green spaces are vital. “Outside of a few tiny recreational parks, Central Park is pretty much all we have left (here in Manhattan)” says Smallwood, “With an abundance of actual sporadic nature — the importance of these spaces is unmatched, which makes understanding how this one partially came to be even more interesting.”

Donavon Smallwood

Donavon Smallwood grew up in a household which emphasized literature and a deep engagement with the tradition of art. For him photography, as with all art/creation, is a communion with the divine and he uses the medium as a means of exploring Man, human imagination, essence, and nature. He received his BA from Hunter College in 2016. He is the recipient of the 2021 Aperture Portfolio Prize. Publications and editorial clients include The Cut, The Observer, The New York Times, T Magazine, The New Yorker, and The Wire. Languor, his first monograph, is set to be published by Trespasser in 2021.